RANGOON — In one of the clearest indications to date of how the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) will sell itself to voters ahead of Burma’s Nov. 8 general election, a senior leader on Thursday credited his party with setting the country on the path to democracy.
“We can say that democracy originates from the USDP, since the government that started the reforms to becoming a democratic country was our party’s government,” Tin Naing Thein, secretary general of the USDP, said in a speech broadcast on state-run television and radio, adding that the party had worked hard to repay voters who supported its candidates in the 2010 general election, a poll widely viewed as rigged.
The USDP leader touted the economic development that the country has undergone over the last four years under the stewardship of the party’s chairman, President Thein Sein, describing his administration’s “three phase” approach to democratic transition in the 15-minute speech, which all political parties are entitled to air ahead of the historic November vote.
Tin Naing Thein said the party would continue to work toward peace and reconciliation with the country’s ethnic armed groups and the alleviation of poverty, “lifting us out of LDC [Least Developed Country] status into [the ranks of] middle-income countries, as our party’s priorities, since these are much-needed requirements for Myanmar.”
The speech was received derisively by some, with a senior leader from one of the country’s strongest ethnic political parties pointing out that democracy activists had fought for the cause for decades under the country’s former military regime.
Aye Thar Aung, a central committee member of the Arakan National Party (ANP), said the thousands of people opposed to the junta that ceded power in 2011 were more deserving of the claim to have brought the country democracy, with nationwide protests in 1988 and 2007 just two of the most prominent examples.
“To get to the current situation, many lives of youths and students were sacrificed. So, we can’t accept their saying that they introduced democracy,” he said.
Taking a harder line, political analyst Yan Myo Thein said that until the country’s controversial 2008 Constitution is amended in accordance with democratic norms, a transition to democracy had not yet even begun.
“So what the USDP official said is unreasonable,” he said
Addressing the issue in his speech, Tin Naing Thein said the party had “already agreed in principle” to make changes to the charter.
“It’s not enough to only agree principally. It is important to implement practically,” Aye Thar Aung rebutted, pointing out that within the current government’s term, the USDP, which holds a parliamentary majority, failed to substantively change the military-drafted Constitution.
A handful of proposed amendments were put to a vote earlier this year, but all failed to clear a 75 percent threshold required for charter change. Though the ballot was secret, some USDP lawmakers did support the changes. Even if all of the ruling party’s parliamentarians had voted in favor, however, the amendments would not likely have passed, owing to a 25 percent reservation of seats in the legislature to the military, which is believed to have opposed the changes as a bloc.
Tin Naing Thein on Thursday also addressed the political role of the military, an institution still closely tied to the USDP. The secretary general said the party sees a need for the military to work together with Parliament, the government and Burma’s myriad ethnic groups at a time when internal conflict continues to plague the country’s peripheries.
“When the country achieves eternal peace, the military will play a defense role more than a political role, and the politics within Parliament will gradually change,” he said.
Yan Myo Thein said that the USDP leader’s remarks tying peace to a reduced political role for the Burma Army made the party appear reluctant to see the military’s political clout reduced.
“In amending the Constitution in accordance with democratic standards, it is a most basic fact to have only elected representatives in Parliament,” he added.
The political vehicle of many retired military generals including Thein Sein, the USDP came to power in a frequently criticized 2010 vote, but can take credit for political and economic reforms that prompted Western governments to lift crippling sanctions and ushered in unprecedented foreign investment over the last four years. The release of more than 1,000 political prisoners and easing of media censorship have also taken place under Thein Sein’s watch, though prisoners of conscience still remain behind bars and more than a dozen journalists have done jail time in recent years for reporting that has provoked the government’s ire.
The ruling party is expected to face a stiff electoral challenge from the country’s largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and dozens of ethnic political parties.
The NLD has presented itself as the true representative of democrats’ aspirations, and popular party chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi has been critical of the government for not implementing more sweeping political reforms since it took power.
With public broadcasts from the USDP and the National Democratic Party for Development on Thursday, 29 of the 92 political parties registered to compete on Nov. 8 have aired their parties’ manifestos to date. The NLD has been slotted airtime on Sept. 21.